In the recent past, since the beginning of this year, we have seen several civil society activists in Bangladesh being critical of our government in their ability to use cyberspace and the use of social media to share information. They have also alleged that the existing Digital Security Act has been a negative measure in terms of democratic rights. The Editor's Council has also expressed its worry over cases filed against journalists within this format.
On one side we have had claims that intervention in the spread of a news item is not only the controlling of a person's right to information but also taking away a citizen's right of freedom of information. It has been reiterated that such a process affects transparency and accountability. On the other hand, we have been pointing out that spreading of false news and disinformation with its own denotations can affect the paradigm of stability and security.
This persuaded me to try and find out what is happening elsewhere- particularly in how our neighboring region of Southeast Asia is tackling this problem.
For some time we have noticed efforts by relevant authorities to contain dissemination of news in this region that, according to them, are not examples of responsible journalism. The focus has been on items in the social media, electronic media and print media aimed at supposedly creating wrong connotations of news.
It is this dynamics and what is currently taking place in Thailand that has led me to try and find out how Southeast Asian countries are tackling the rise of "fake news" within their horizon. The revelations about their efforts towards responsible news propagation, upholding of human rights and transparency were most interesting. What is happening now in Thailand would remind one of what had happened in 2014 after the military staged a coup. Many prominent Thai academics and activists had fled the country. Their advocacy for the abolishment of lèse majesté law (which forbids any criticism of the King)-and criminalises any such criticism, insult, or threat against the king and other royalty-had put them in peril at a time when the political atmosphere in the country was extremely strained. One wonders what will happen this time.
Former Singapore politician Dr. James Gomez, now Chair of the Asia Centre has revealed how some authoritarian governments in his region have undertaken measures to tackle the governance issue along with the question of accountability.
It has been noted that some governments have been exploiting "fake news" as a political tool against their critics. This is being specially undertaken against those who are critical of government institutions.
Governments, for example in Singapore and the Philippines, are dismissing as fake news many critical opinions, research findings, and news content that are not in line with the government stance. However, this growing trend is now being interpreted as systematic attempts to curb freedom of expression and undermine the men, women, and organisations behind these dissenting opinions.
Apparently, since 2017, governments in Vietnam, Thailand, and elsewhere in the region have been introducing new legislation or revising existing laws to use against dissidents. These laws are held up by the authorities as necessary for fostering responsible communications and to protect social harmony. Critics have however been pointing out that some regimes have been using some of the Sections in these "vaguely" drafted laws to shield themselves from criticism by activists, particularly during election periods.
In this context, it has been recalled that Vietnam authorities in January 2019 took into custody Nguyen Van Vein using Article 109 of the 2015 Criminal Code for his alleged attempt to "overthrow the people's administration." Nguyen is known for being an environmental activist. It is understood that many members of his organisation are apparently now in prison for human rights and pro-democracy activism. It is understood that Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code and the 2019 Cyber-security Law also provide a basis for authorities to press charges and punish those accused of spreading online "propaganda against the State." Gomez has observed that over the past year some persons in Vietnam have also been charged under Article 117 for their comments on Facebook. Subsequently, the Vietnamese government pointed out to Face book that the company had violated the country's cyber-security law.
James Gomez has also drawn attention to alleged steps in Singapore to control civil society space. In this regard he has noted that 'New Naratif', an online news outlet has been facing difficulty within the matrix of regulatory space. Apparently, in April 2018, editors Kirsten Han and PJ Thum of this online news outlet decided to register their independent portal as a company, Observatory Southeast Asia (OSA), to gain a legal status. However, the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) refused the application on the grounds that the proposed company's objective was political in nature and that its funding was linked with George Soros's Open Society Foundation.
ACRA is also supposed to have hinted that it did not agree to allow foreign interference in domestic governance. ACRA's intervention was interpreted as being based on Singapore's Political Donation Act, which places strict criteria for cause-related organisations. It would be pertinent at this point to draw the attention of some of our Bangladeshi NGOs (running with foreign funding assistance) in this regard.
One will, however, be quite surprised with the severity of response with something that happened in Laos. In September 2018, Phijika Boonkwang, President of a local football club in Vientiane enjoying celebrity status within the country apparently shocked her admirers when she announced her resignation from the club. She had earlier received a 90-day ban from football-related activities after she had used her Facebook account to complain live about the conditions of the road leading to the national football federation. The concerned government authorities apparently did not like this. They thought that Boonkwang had harmed the country's reputation through this inappropriate observation on Facebook. This was seen as being a repetition and similar to her previous outspoken remarks of how the government had poorly handled humanitarian assistance operations during the 2018 collapse of a hydroelectric dam, which had displaced at least 6,600 people and resulted in 200 dead or missing. It may be recalled that during that incident, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith had warned people of fake news coming from unofficial, foreign news outlets.
Philippines, in its own way, have also been carrying out its administrative response to alleged fake news. One is reminded here of March 2019 when an administration official claimed that the United Nations (UN) had been "infiltrated by the Communist Party of the Philippines through Ms. Tauli Corpuz". The official was referring to Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Filipina UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people. The administration's disdain for the UN arose from the United Nation's vocal criticism of President Duterte's highly controversial "war on drugs."
I will desist from referring to what is happening in Myanmar where the present authoritarian regime garbed in the cover of false democracy have been resorting to arson, rape, kidnapping and murder to restrain freedom of information. We have seen what has happened to the Rohingyas.
There have been reports that such harsh approaches by the administration in several South-eastern Asian countries have drawn attention not only of civil society actors elsewhere in the world but also international civil rights institutions. International journalists have also recorded their feelings about the need for racial equality. Many have also strongly registered their views in cyberspace. However, any durable solution has not been possible because of the misuse of cyberspace for disinformation warfare.
People in general tend to believe things that confirm their prejudices no matter how bizarre they are. This is where the problem begins. In the era of social media, which breaks the traditional notion of gatekeeping in the flow of information, one has to be much more cautious in relying on content found online. People need to be their own gatekeepers. They should control their predispositions and take time to verify a claim or information from random online sources before passing it on. But this is not happening in most cases. An MIT research on people's behaviour on twitter last year concluded: "We have a very strong conclusion that the spread of falsity is outpacing the truth because human beings are more likely to retweet false than true news."
It has also been pointed by some that the younger population has been gradually losing trust in the mainstream media. People have been in search of alternatives, and social media has emerged as an option for them. This has resulted in the younger generation in most countries purposefully erecting "online portals" to fill the vacuum. This unfortunately appears to have played into the hands of the peddlers of fake news.
Nevertheless, one needs to understand that the flow of information should be free. There has to be transparency for achieving accountability. However, this process needs to be free of politicisation and responsible. Misuse of this dynamics through "gujob" will otherwise leave stains on clean sheets. This applies to activists as well as those charged with upholding good governance. We must all remember that we are all living in a world without frontiers.
Muhammad Zarnir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.